Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Talking the talk or....

February 3, 2008 - 4:09pm -- Carol Diehl

It’s always gratifying to have one’s beliefs confirmed, especially by the likes of Jasper Johns. Following yesterday’s post and comments about the relative necessity of artists being able to articulate what their work means (I think that’s what critics are for—why do their job for them?) comes a piece in today's New York Times about the upcoming exhibition at the Met organized around his gray paintings, about which Johns says, “Yes, gray is important to me. But I don’t tend to think of it as separate from the rest of my work” and explains his relationship to the tradition of monochromatic painting by stating, “I was trying to do something else.” A good press release that does not make. I’ve met Johns and found him, as he’s known to be, distinctly unresponsive in conversation. But does that mean he's any less an artist? Sometimes people choose a visual means of expression because words are not their strong point. Johns’s reticence, however, may be seen as a matter of choice rather than the result of simple inhibition when, at the end of the article, he’s quoted as saying, “To me…self description is a calamity.” You can’t get more emphatic than that.


I love "self description is a calamity." Most composers and musicians are also good examples of that maxim (though there are a few exceptions like Berlioz and John Adams, for instance, who prove the rule).

I've worked in the graphics field for decades as a typesetter/presentations specialist, and I've noticed that the vast majority of the really talented designers I work with are dyslexic. There's a reason, in other words, that they are in their line of work and it's absurd to have them play with words, which is one reason that a lot of fabulously designed print pieces end up unreadable. The designer doesn't read.

Submitted by Mike G (not verified) on
This post makes me nervous. I realize you are making the point that it is not a "necessity" for an artist to be articulate about his/her work, but it's easy to miss the specificity of your argument and read this as vaguely supportive of dumbness (as in unable to speak), as a viable postion for visual artists. Words are a powerful tool of self-representation and for artists, whose visual imagery is often a site for the personal projections of critics and audience, they are essential for creating a context in which an artist may be considered. I respect John's decision to limit his words, but I would not promote his personal choice as a viable position for artists. Articulate self-representation is an important skill for artists to represent themselves in the swirl of the market.

Mine is not a brief for “dumbness” but for the possibility of mystery, what we don't know we don't know about our work, and I’m more interested in how art is made than what happens to it when it hits “the swirl of the market.” While two of the artists I most respect, Robert Irwin and Olafur Eliasson, come from clearly articulated philosophies, I’d posit that these philosophies were formulated as a result of their processes, rather than the other way around—and I also think there are layers of meaning in their work they don’t fully understand. However in both of their cases, the work stands on its own. Too often I see glib explanations acting as a stand-in for the art itself, especially when the art comments on other art, has a political basis, uses images borrowed from the media, or is the result of some minutely convoluted personal process—and I’ve seen graduate students suffer from feeling they should be able to come up a pat reason for doing what they do. Believe me, I’m all for artists being articulate, having endured lectures by Matthew Ritchie and Dana Schutz that verged on idiocy. But I’m more interested in what artists think about, what their influences have been, and how they got from there to here, than needing to know what they think the work “means” and its intended effect on the viewer.

Submitted by MikeX (not verified) on
to add to the conversation, I had my first full class meeting, and was quite surprised by the students level of intelligence and openness and willing to share that with the whole class, I felt that the class would grow and learn so much faster with everyone pitching in and would make teaching so much more fun and I will learn from the students about painting as much as I will teach.....Rx

I believe completely that the guided group crit is the most effective way to teach art. Even when I taught Fundamentals of Painting, I asked students to stand next to their paintings and tell the class what they thought was working, what wasn’t; and what they were trying for, which was often simply a feeling. They learned more from carefully observing their fellow students’ work and commenting on it than from anything anyone could tell them. What I’m against is the pseudo-intellectual (now there’s a term that needs to be revived!) bullshit, which, in the professional world, is too often accepted as justification for weak work. It’s everywhere, and no one questions it. Today I saw a video clip of a studio visit where artist started out by saying, “Space itself interests me. Something I’ve been thinking about lately is what Frank Stella wrote about kind of like Baroque space and that abstraction needed to consider what happened so much earlier, from Renaissance painting to what Caravaggio did, and it’s like this new, wild space. I think space is this wild, accessible thing…” And then the comment from “Rita”: “One of the most unique artists of today! Always expressing such deep thoughts in his amazing art work.” I did NOT make this up! I’ll spare the artist embarrassment by leaving out his name, but you can find it on

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